May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Naming a. single fashion designer the most overrated is like picking the most self-absorbed model: There are so many to choose from! To my mind the entire professional class is overrated—by the humorless, adoring in-group that fawns over every ruffle and seam, by a suggestible public that pays premium prices to wear “designer” labels, and, most of all, by the designers themselves. The whole process is skewed by the vast sums fashion designers spend burnishing their own good names and reputations. Seductive images of their taste, competence, good breeding, and tolerance for all races (if not body types) are ubiquitous. Some designers, certainly, were avatars of something original and important and created fashions that both reflected and altered their society. It is in this realm, then, where we should look for the most overrated, for to be genuinely overrated, the designer must have a fairly grand reputation.
In America my choice would be Halston, a fashion guru who was probably a better hatmaker than clothing designer. Roy Halston Frowick was the forerunner of a certain breed of modern fashion figure whose queen-sized ego far exceeded any particular talent he demonstrated in the atelier, if such a name can be ascribed to his eventual headquarters, a drug-ridden aerie in the Olympic Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Of course, he could be enormously witty and charming. I spoke to the man once, at length, on the telephone and came away liking him a lot. However, I must confess that no matter how many photographs of his work I see, I cannot really determine anything very distinctive about his designs. They seem to me to consist of the absence of design, a sort of Spartan plushness—for example, a straight columnar dress of pure cashmere or a turtleneck with widelegged pants. These were alleged to call forth the essence of the wearer. His supposed genius rested on the notion of elimination—of pockets, zippers, ruffles, and so on. But I think, in the end, his stuff was nondescript. He was a masterly stylist and perhaps a precursor of the modernist fashion designer/stylists who have proliferated to such an extent that a reasonable consumer now has the vague idea that good design really means no design. Just throw on a bolt of triple-ply cashmere with armholes and an oval cut to let you to pull the thing over your head. (That’ll be five thousand dollars, please.) Halston is very much in vogue again, thanks to a strange period nostalgia that has been pounding the fashion scene in waves. He has become legend partly because he rose to prominence in the midst of a vacuum, the late sixties and early seventies, when fashion was at a nadir and no one wanted rich-looking clothes. Halston supplied them, but in pared-down form. Yet he somehow managed to be a huge flop in business, ultimately losing the right to design under his own name. Frankly speaking, I see no real difference between Liza Minnelli in one of those Halston halter-top white jump suits and Superfly.
Here there is less to say. My choice would be from among the group of American designers in the 1940s and 1950s who created the so-called sportswear look, which is essentially the look most people wear today—including people in Paris. These include Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, and Vera Maxwell. But my pick would be Norman Norell, another 1940s designer who emphasized the dressier side of this ail-American functional look. Norell was known for precisely tailored suits and sequined evening dresses. But he was also prophetic, showing wasp-waisted, full-skirted dresses in the years before Christian Dior’s New Look. Much of what he did still looks marvelous. And the quality was tremendous. Unfortunately for him, until the 1960s American names didn’t mean anything in fashion. Paris was all. Norell had the misfortune of being great too early.